Diablo 4 Wants You To Take A Closer Look At Evil
By pulling the camera in closer for both combat encounters and cutscenes, this is a dungeon crawler that demands you take a front row seat.
The dungeon crawler genre that Diablo helped to trailblaze is not known for getting up close and personal with its characters. The overhead perspective and point-and-click control scheme have lent us a role as dispassionate observers, watching a diorama of mankind's struggle against the hordes of Hell. Diablo IV is different. It pulls you in close and demands you take a front-row seat, and it makes a massive difference in how the game feels and plays.
This is most immediately apparent in one of the earliest cutscenes featuring your hero. After doing the heroic thing and clearing out a dungeon full of demons, you return to a small village that asks to celebrate with a good drink. The camera pulls in close to watch as your created character, looking just as well-crafted as any of the NPCs, grows dizzy and passes out. The crowd murmurs and quiets itself, another villager comes prepared with a stretcher, and you quickly get the sense that this was always the plan.
The opening twist helps to illustrate something core about this story: More than other Diablo games, humanity itself is a central threat. From the very first scene, Lillith represents unchecked temptation. From a scholar who reluctantly agrees to fulfill a summoning ritual to a group of bloodthirsty villagers caving in the skull of their local priest, the villain in this game has a way of turning people toward their worst impulses and excesses. This doesn't appear to be the story of humanity heroically rising up against demonic hordes with you as their avatar. Humans are greedy, violent, selfish creatures, and that relatable element drives the horror home that much more. The closer camera angles in the cutscenes featuring your created character help serve as the connective tissue to the other cinematic scenes featuring Lillith.
The closer view of the world extends to the gameplay itself as well. This isn't an over-the-shoulder adventure game, but the camera does stay closer to your hero and they take up noticeably more screen real estate. The color palette is muted compared to Diablo III, going with the more earthy hues of Diablo 2. And the up-close camera angle gives us a better look at the world, which is just gorgeous. Everything from the creatures to the world design creates an environment that demands exploration. At one point, between taking out bloodthirsty wargs and rattling skeletons, I saw a pair of squirrels chase one another around a mountainous ridge, leaving tiny footprints in the snow behind them.
As horrifying and harrowing as the storytelling is, the dungeon-crawling loop is fun in equal measure. I chose a Sorceress, my favorite Diablo class, to put this version through its paces, and almost immediately started down a Lightning build. I was especially fond of the new take on Chain Lightning, which has less of a bloom effect than previous versions. Instead, it p'toings around the battlefield like a dodgeball shot out of a cannon, clearing a crowded room in moments. Diablo IV seems to understand the importance of granting modifier options early, as each of my abilities almost immediately opened access to enhance or change them. The aforementioned Chain Lightning, for example, let me modify it with a boost that would grant extra damage if it bounced back and went through me again.
Another major change comes to the dodge-roll, which was introduced to Diablo III's console port and represented a major change in how the movement felt in that game. In Diablo IV, that move is available, even on PC, but now comes with a relatively hefty cooldown. As a result you're more planted in place, and the dodge is meant to be a last-ditch escape. My build was tanky enough that this didn't impact me too much, and I suspect that it's partly to make more room for other moves that fulfill the same purpose. The Lightning Sorc build, for example, eventually gets access to a Teleport ability that serves both a combat and evasion role. You can reduce the cooldown or get extra roll charges with other items, but the default ability could present a struggle for fans of more nimble classes who may feel like their feet have been nailed to the floor.
Diablo IV makes it very easy and cheap to respec a character and try out different builds. Instead of simply letting you unlock anything, Diablo IV has various connected spokes that unlock in order, like wheels of a bicycle. Once you fill one spoke enough, another opens up. (This also has a cool thematic tie to the opening cutscene, evoking the symbology of blood runes that summoned Lillith.) It's unclear how respeccing will work in the full game, but having the option is a smart move. I tinkered with some other Sorceress builds, but didn't enjoy them as much as Lightning. That said, some builds are naturally built better for different purposes--the massive fire beam available for a Fire Sorc would be ideal for facing down large single entities like bosses, and similarly, Frost seems aimed at crowd control. Lightning was my happy medium, letting me decimate a crowded room and also pack a punch against bosses.
In fact, the entire skill tree system overhaul seems very elegant this time around. The spokes of each section of the skill tree fan out to let you mix and match as you please, dabbling in a number of different abilities. Fully upgrading a particular skill will always be stronger than going part-way with a number of others, but there's value in versatility. I expect that clever Diablo players will come up with some truly spectacular concoctions with these tools.
All of this is complemented by the real reason any of us come to Diablo, or any other loot game: the fashion. Diablo IV appears to be learning from its predecessor for giving you meaningful loot and a limited amount of junk, striking the right balance right from the start. Even more impressively, though, the various equipment types look remarkably cohesive regardless of whether they're part of the same set. Aside from one or two pieces that looked awkward on my Sorceress, I had trouble finding two pieces of equipment that didn't look good together. Somehow they just seemed to match, even when I knew they actually didn't.
This being a beta, of course, I didn't get to experiment with higher-level Legendary gear or class sets that serve as templates for build-arounds for skills. But if randomized loot drops look this good, at this high fidelity, I'm looking forward to seeing what kinds of full set drops there are to pursue in the full game.
Diablo IV looks to be honoring the series' lineage, borrowing influences from prior Diablo games and building upon it with modernized approaches to storytelling with truly striking visuals and set design. It's a strong foundation, and with another beta test coming to open the Druid and Necromancer classes, I can't wait to take another seat--front and center.
Read more on the Diablo IV beta and how to join.
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